In the campaign’s final days, President Obama’s hopes of reelection may turn on his ability to assemble very different coalitions of support in the Sunbelt and the Rustbelt, a wave of new battleground state polling this week suggests.
In diverse Sunbelt states like Virginia, Florida and Colorado, Obama is drawing enough backing from minorities and upscale white women to remain step-for-step with Mitt Romney, despite big deficits for the president among working-class whites and a substantial shortfall among college-educated white men in most of those states, according to detailed analyses of recent surveys provided to National Journal.
In Rustbelt battlegrounds with smaller minority populations, like Iowa, Wisconsin, and above all Ohio, Obama is clinging to a narrow advantage behind strong support from those same upscale white women-and a better performance among working-class whites, especially women, than anywhere else in the country.
In essence, in the Sunbelt, Obama is relying on the new Democratic coalition of minorities, young people and upscale whites, while in the Rustbelt he is depending on support that much more closely resembles the traditional New Deal coalition that Democrats mobilized from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Across the Sunbelt, Obama is courting the new coalition with a message that draws sharp contrasts with Romney on social issues like abortion and access to contraception. In the Rustbelt, he’s relying primarily on a message of economic populism that stresses his support for the auto bailout, and paints Romney as a rapacious corporate raider for his years at Bain Capital. “In the Rustbelt the axis on which the decision occurs is much more focused on these questions of economic populism,” says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who is working in these states for the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA. “But in [Sunbelt] states where the suburban vote is more dominant the decision making is much more along the line of in step or out of step with the voters’ philosophical views” especially on social issues.
As I noted recently, many analysts (including me) expected the Sunbelt states to be more favorable for Obama because their population growth has been fueled by the constituencies at the core of his “coalition of the ascendant,” particularly minorities and college-educated whites. By contrast, the Rustbelt states are dominated by older and blue-collar whites who are the most resistant to Obama in national polling.
Yet while Obama remains highly competitive in most Sunbelt battlegrounds, he enters the final weekend in a slightly stronger position in the Rustbelt states, according to the latest surveys. The Sunbelt, with its traditional skepticism about government, has proved more receptive to Romney’s drive to portray Obama as a bloated big-spending liberal.
Meanwhile, Obama has benefited across the Rustbelt from an overall decline in unemployment more robust than in many of the Sunbelt states still struggling to crawl out from the blast radius of the housing implosion, as well as the specific popularity of the auto rescue. “The complaint that every other working class white person had about this administration—where was my bailout?—has been answered in Ohio,” acknowledges one Republican strategist close to the Romney campaign. At the same time, the Obama team’s portrayal of Romney as a symbol of corporate irresponsibility has resounded more powerfully in the Rustbelt, with its bitter history of plant closings and industrial decline, than in the Sunbelt, whose culture is defined more by opportunity and growth. “That [Bain] narrative is so much more resonant with blue-collar voters up there in the Midwest,” Garin says.
Across the region, Obama has also benefited from the AFL-CIO’s unprecedented program to reach not only union but also non-union working-class voters through its Workers’ Voice program. That effort, centered on door-to-door canvassing, is much more robust in Rustbelt states with a stronger union tradition (particularly Ohio and Wisconsin) than in the Sunbelt, except for Nevada. In Ohio alone, the program is attempting to contact two million working-class families behind a lunch-bucket message of economic populism.
The combined effect of these differences is evident in the new polling. In national surveys, Obama faces the prospect of the weakest showing among non-college white voters of any Democratic nominee since Walter Mondale was buried in Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide. But in the Rustbelt, the situation is very different, according to surveys released since Wednesday in Ohio (Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS), Wisconsin and Iowa (NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist) and Michigan (EPIC-MRA for the Detroit Free Press and a consortium of state television stations.)